Dion (not his real name) was arrested for trespassing at a city bus stop. He was a 15-year-old black boy with the sullen attitude common to teenagers. He liked to hang out with his friends and could be sarcastic to adults in that teenage way that is so annoying when you are middle-aged and probably infuriating to a poorly trained police officer. He was neither a thug nor an honor student. Just an average kid. He had to take the city bus across town to his school, and he changed buses at the downtown plaza where he liked to hang around and see friends on the way home.
The Leon County Courthouse
I was a brand new attorney, fresh out of law school, beginning my career in the Juvenile Delinquency Division of the Public Defender’s office. The job was indoctrination under fire. Within three days of bar admission I took a case to trial where I won two of three counts at trial and the remaining count was reversed on appeal. When Dion’s case hit my desk, I was amazed that the State Attorney would pursue a charge of trespassing at a public bus stop. After all, bus stops are public places, how can someone possibly trespass at a bus stop? I figured that I could hang out at the bus station all day long and not worry about being arrested. Why couldn’t Dion?
Orlando Police Response to a Non-violent Protest
Dion decided to go to trial and I began preparing. It would be one of my first trials and I prepared with all the enthusiasm and optimism that young lawyers bring to the legal profession. I kept searching for the motivation for this case. Why did anyone care about this child staying too long at the bus station? It was not a case where Dion had stayed at the bus station all day long. He merely missed one cycle of the bus before being arrested. Researching the case, I learned that Taltran, the company that operated the Tallahassee City buses, kept photographs of everyone who was trespassed from the bus station, so I subpoenaed those photographs.
Stop Police Brutality!
My subpoena resulted in a call from the City Attorney to my boss, Nancy Daniels, the elected Public Defender. He wanted her to reign in her newly minted Assistant Public Defender, but Nancy Daniels backed me up and refused to censure my work. When I got the photographs, I found that, other than two white men who appeared homeless, all the people who received trespass warnings at the bus station were young black men.
Law Enforcement Muscle
The main bus stop in Tallahassee where Dion was arrested is named C.K. Steele Plaza, after a Tallahassee civil rights leader who fought a long and difficult battle to integrate the city’s bus service in which he was repeatedly arrested. I was appalled that these arrests were happening in the shadow of the statue of the civil rights leader who fought for the rights of young men like Dion to ride the bus.
Before the trial, I subpoenaed the arresting officer and the leaders of Taltran to appear as witnesses. The trial was scheduled to begin in the morning but kept getting delayed until late afternoon. During the day, before the trial started, I felt a sense of satisfaction whenever I would leave the courtroom during a break and see the arresting police officer, the City Attorney, and the Taltran representatives all sitting on the hard wooden benches in the hallway. I knew from my own experience that those benches quickly became uncomfortable and that spending a day sitting on them was probably quite miserable for them.
Law Enforcement or a military operation?
When the trial finally started, I encountered what felt like a wall of denial. When I raised constitutional arguments against the idea that the city could trespass its own citizens from the bus station the judge told me that he did not want the constitution argued in his courtroom. Nobody cared when I laid out all the photos of the black boys given trespass warnings in front of the Taltan representative and when I asked him if he noticed what they all had in common he replied that they were all young and then looked up at me with a huge grin on his face. I was stunned by his denial of what seemed obvious to me, and then I realized that I was working in a system that existed in a perpetual state of denial. When the judge found Dion guilty, I felt my innocence begin to fall away.
The coming years reinforced the lesson I learned that day. After a while it seemed normal for me to arrive in the courtroom early in the morning to meet with a room of young black faces who had been arrested the night before. Sometimes there were poor white children, but rarely did I ever see a middle class or wealthy child. The system has a way of conditioning you to accept the absurd and I soon stopped thinking about how bizarre it was that non-violent children were brought to Court in shackles and jumpsuits. After a while, I even stopped wondering why judges didn’t question the fact that there were court-appointed attorneys defending children in their court who went years without ever filing a protective motion or taking a single case to trial. At one point, I worked on the issue of children in adult prisons in Florida, back when you could search the inmate database by age and found that the list of inmates in adult prison under age 16 was comprised only of black children.
Working in juvenile delinquency court took me into the lives and neighborhoods of Tallahassee’s black children. I visited underfunded public schools where the architecture and surrounding fences reminded me of a prison. I accompanied investigators on interviews conducted inside dilapidated homes deep inside Southside neighborhoods that I never knew existed. I met children who needed basic healthcare and things like glasses. I saw children floundering in a grossly underfunded foster care system where children removed from abusive homes to be housed on conference room floors of state office buildings and fed out of vending machines (I was part of a successful class action led by FSU Professor Paolo Annino to stop this practice). I saw children in need of mental health care being sent to private delinquency programs that contracted to provide mental services but had not a single licensed mental health professional on their staff. I watched the video of a black child being murdered by guards in a bootcamp, knowing that children whom I represented were in the same program. Later I saw those guards found not guilty in a trial that some experienced criminal defense attorneys told me the prosecutors seemed to be trying to lose.
Seemingly endless waves of law enforcement
It was because of Dion and the hundreds of other black children whom I saw arrested, mostly for non-violent crimes and minor drug offenses, that I felt compelled to join in the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Orlando. The issues are too important, and the injustices are too great, for me to ignore.
One hundred years ago the Wobblies changed life for American workers based upon the belief that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. In a world that was much more segregated than today, they created a labor union that included men and women of all colors and ethnicities. The Wobblies became one of the most potent, effective, and feared labor unions in American history when they took away the ability of the bosses to use race and ethnicity to divide and conquer workers.
Walking the streets of Orlando, doing my best to maintain social distancing in a large moving mass of people, I thought about the Wobblies, the battles they fought, and the things they achieved. I thought about how the injustices that Black Lives Matter is fighting are bigger than just a militarized police force recklessly killing black men. People use the words “systemic racism” and they’re right, it’s an entire system of oppression that harms everyone. People of color get the worst of it for sure, but it robs the larger society of all that oppressed people could otherwise contribute to our nation.
The inequities are pervasive and for too long have been allowed to exist. The injustices and inequities are strikingly obvious in places like
- public schools that cannot afford music or art and are built to look like prisons
- neighborhoods without banks, hospitals, libraries, or museums
- inadequate consumer protection laws that allow dishonest businesses to flourish by ripping off the hard-earned wages of working-class people
- the excessive overuse of incarceration
- incarceration for profit
- criminalizing social problems rather than addressing the root causes, in a nation that has the largest prison population in the world and in history
- Judges and legislatures who create rules such as qualified immunity which make it exceeding difficult for victims of police brutality to succeed when suing for the harms and indignities they have suffered
- A legal system obsessed with procedure and comfortable with obvious injustice as long as the proper procedural rules have been followed.
A legal system disconnected from justice is the foundation upon which abusive cops and militarized police forces thrive. Unfortunately, we live in a time when our courts are being packed with judges selected from the Federalist Society, a group whose members believe that it is improper for judges to concern themselves with matters of justice. The Federalist Society philosophy, which they refer to as “textualism”, is a reincarnation of the legal positivism that was pervasive in the courts of Nazi Germany.
They had to be sweating like crazy in those helmets and jackets
Unless and until the United States makes significant societal changes, that go beyond our methods of policing, we will fall short of our promise of equality under the law. It’s not enough to simply tone down our police tactics, we need structural change in our legal system, our laws, our educational system, our healthcare system, our mental health system, our gun laws, and in how we regard each other such that we can look upon a struggling person with compassion rather than condemnation. I marched because I know that we can create a better America where young men like Dion are given fair treatment and an opportunity rather than due process on the way to a prison cell.
One of several helicopters over the protest
I will close by saying that racism is more than just the language we use. It’s the laws we enforce, the access to education our society provides, the healthcare our people receive, and it’s who we see as deserving and who sits on the outside. It’s who can sit at a bus stop without being deemed a criminal.